Driving in Japan in Winter

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“Yes, your tires are here waiting for you, but there are only two.”

This was odd because our friend Masa had ordered four of them more than a month ago.

Aghast at our intention of driving into the winter with the AT tires that were on the Land Cruiser, Masa had found an affordable set on the local E-bay and had them sent to his friend, the Land Cruiser aficionado Omori, who lives east of Tokyo.

We stoped at Omori’s place on our way north to switch our worn tires for the typical studless tires that the Japanese use for the snowy winter months.

Every day is a journey, and the journey is home itself

~Bashō

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Winter in Japan - new tires

Winter Tires on the Land Cruiser

“But I contacted Masa, and he fixed the problem. He’s find another two tires for you.” Omori reassured Coen.

Whatever the hiccup was, it didn’t matter. As we had experienced so often, leave it to the Japanese to organize and fix things quickly. The two other tires arrived promptly.

Omori loves cars and has a particular affection for the supercars of the 1970s and 1980s. Next to his house he keeps, among other cars, a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Toyota Supra.

In his limited English and our non-existent Japanese we had to guess a bit at each other’s stories. From what we understood he used to specialize in Land Cruisers but after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 the economic situation declined – he lives not far from that region – and he had had to adapt.

Today Omori repairs all kinds of cars, but continues to restore a couple of old ones that he really likes.

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Safety First – Changing Split Rims

Our Land Cruiser has split rims, which has never been an issue in our fifteen years on the road and mechanics have opened them without mishaps throughout South Asia and South America.

However, officially you should use a safety cage because if not handled properly, the ring can jump out of the confined rims and cause bodily harm. Not using a cage was unheard of in this country and Omori took us to the local tire shop where they changed the tires in accordance with the rules.

Car Accident #2 in Japan

With that fixed he treated us to dinner in a local curry house after which we said our goodbyes. We followed the GPS to get to a 7 Eleven but from a residential area we drove straight into a forest. We laughed. Our first forest trail in Japan and it took us to a convenience store? At the end of the trail we found ourselves in a clearing, where there had previously been a 7 Eleven, we assumed.

Fortunately, there are thousands of convenience stores in this country and in no time we stood parked in front of a Lawson. Convenience stores are the best places for WiFi and we were quietly checking our emails when we were jolted out of our concentration by a car reversing into our home on wheels. 

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During all these years we had had no collisions and this was our second in overly organized Japan. We stepped outside and looked at an expensive white car with its rear in the Land Cruiser’s bumper. A young man got out of his car, checked the damage and fell to his knees, groaning. We had the feeling he might be driving his father’s car, he seemed that young.

He was full of apologies, and Coen took him by the shoulder, “No worries. It’s only a bumper.”

After he had given us his phone number he left, probably scared as to what to tell his father. The next morning, in daylight, we noticed some minor cracks in the fender but couldn’t be bothered with it. Our home on wheels is full of cracks and a few more don’t matter.

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Into the Winter

Honshu’s metropolitan cities of Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe were behind us. Ahead of us stretched the other extreme: the island’s northern hinterland. Big-city people consider Tohoku backward country.

“Just empty land. There is nothing there,” many argue.

It is exactly this wilderness with open spaces and uninhabited mountains that makes it so attractive to us, overlanders. Bashō, arguably Japan’s most famous poet (17th century) made Tohoku famous when he detailed his 1500-mile journey on foot through the region in his literary work called Oku no Hosomichi, (The Narrow Road to the Deep North). This work contains a passage that perfectly describes our nomadic life, “Every day is a journey, and the journey is home itself.”

Quite suddenly, ‘real’ winter was all around us. We had had freezing temperatures for the past month or so, but from one moment to the next we were cruising through an entirely white world of feet-deep snow. Coming from the Netherlands, where we don’t have these amounts of snow, we were elated.

The roads, though, were spick and span. Throughout the winter we would continue to be amazed at Japan’s 24/7 insistence on clearing the roads as much as possible, at least in the urban areas. Having a large fishing industry during the summer months, Japan has many fishermen available in winter to take care of this job.

Over some roads hung LED screens indicating temperatures and weather symbols. Others had arrows that lit up during snowstorms, so during whiteouts drivers knew where the line between the road and the shoulder ran.

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We also came across sprinklers in the road surface that constantly sprayed hot water across the tarmac so it didn’t freeze and become slippery. Vulnerable trees were protected by a structure of planks to prevent the heavy snow from breaking the branches and some houses had wooden structures in front of their windows so the snow sliding off the roof wouldn’t directly block the windows.

A Warm Welcome in a Cold House

One afternoon we drove through the white frozen landscape to the workshop of Mitsuyosha Hochima, where we were expected. This was yet another Land Cruiser aficionado, just as his friends Takahiro and Mai who arrived simultaneously in a bright yellow, spring-over-axle, short 40.

They didn’t speak English and so we communicated with hands and feet and a bit of Google Translate. After the introductions we followed Mai and Takahiro to their beautiful home, which is 150-200 years old. That’s exceptionally old; many houses here are built for one generation and, unfortunately, Japan has no subsidy system to help maintain old and traditional farmhouses like theirs.

The house didn’t have central heating, wasn’t insulated and thus was freezing cold. We sat down on tatami mats around a long, low table made of the wood of a 1000-year-old tree. Japan’s ubiquitous kerosene heater heated the room quickly and intensely, it was separated from other rooms by the traditional sliding doors of wood and translucent paper.

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Tire Traction Device

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Kind and hospitable as our hosts were, an enormous dinner was served. Raw tuna, squid, and a mixture of ginger and roots that tasted great until we realized it contained pieces of whale. That horrified us, but we didn’t say anything, after all we just got there and were guests.

We let the whale for what it was and focused on delicious pieces of tofu and anko nabe – a hot pot with a type of fish. We shared a relaxed and fun evening, with beer and sake, and later hot sake – the last being delicious, but oh so treacherous.

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An Onsen Experience

Our hosts showed us around in the area the next day and early in the evening we arrived in Ginzanso, a town that sits along a meandering river hemmed in by mountains. It is famous for its hot springs and has grown into a place of hotels and restaurants; however, at night and gaslit it is an atmospheric place to go for a stroll.

We left the fancy spas for what they were and opted for the, typically very local, small onsen (hot bath). We paid by putting money in a box outside the door, stepped into a basic changing room, and bathed in the sole bath of just two square meters. It was outrageously hot and I let the cold-water faucet run until the water had an agreeable temperature to sink into.

Being by ourselves, we could determine the temperature that suited us best. In the whole of Japan, characterized by an intense underground volcanic activity, are natural hot baths. For overlanders in winter they are the perfect way to regularly bathe and warm up before returning to a cold vehicle. 

The Reality of Overlanding in Winter

Our hosts returned home and we ventured deeper into the countryside. Tohoku was covered in snow, meters thick in the interior and to a lesser degree along the coast. In the mountains, minor roads were closed in winter, some until late May – summers start late here.

The studless tires were a great buy, having a super grip on the snowy and sometimes ice-glazed roads. In the countryside the snow clearing couldn’t be kept up 24/7 – there simply was too much of it. With forested mountain slopes freshly carpeted in thick layers of snow glaringly white under a blue, sunny sky we were driving through one massive, mind-blowing piece of art.

Not everything was fabulous and fantastic. Mundane issues became more complicated and uncomfortable. It was late when we parked the Land Cruiser one night. In the mountainous area we hadn’t been able to find a properly flat spot. I wasn’t paying attention where I put a pan of soup and it slid from the table onto the ground. The mess was aggravated because of the slant and the soup found its way under the fridge and fruit basket.

The gas heater had a hard time getting started when it was cold, so we had to preheat the canisters by putting one in bed before we got up in the morning or by keeping it under our sweater when we returned from a walk.

When we woke up there was hoarfrost around the edges of the ceiling and the windows were covered by a layer of ice. In this weather we cooked inside on the Coleman, but because of the stove, plus the gas heater, we were steaming up even though we opened windows because both systems eat a lot of oxygen. 

We shut off our water system and returned to using a 20-liter jerrycan with a tap. At the Daiko, a one-dollar shop, we bought an ice scraper. Coen put Teflon spray on the rubber door sealing strips because the doors froze shut now. Sitting in the front of the Land Cruiser became too cold when we were not driving, so we limited our living quarters to the back, closing off the front with blankets.

All in all, overlanding in these conditions required a fair amount of improvising and we knew that in two or three months we’d welcome spring with more enthusiasm than ever. But for now our world was beautifully white, as it would be for the next few months, and we enjoyed as much of it as possible, regularly going for walks or eating lunch on the bumper when the sun was out. 

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Hi-lift

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To Our Next Adventure

In the far north of Tohoku lies Hirosaki. This attractive town was an important political and economic center during the Edo Period (17-19th centuries) and, as a result, has its share of old architecture. The castle inside the park was dressed in snow and throughout the park locals were building snow sculptures for the upcoming snow festival.

Especially in February there are plenty of snow and ice-sculpture festivals in northern Japan and we planned to see some of them. Not here, but on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido and to get there we drove to the ferry in Omozaki. 

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One moment we were driving on clean asphalt with snow all around us; the next the weather took a turn for the worse, catching us in a whiteout. We no longer saw the rear lights of the car in front of us and were grateful for the arrows along the road mentioned earlier that lit up and showed the way.

The snow hit us ferociously from the side. In some parts the trees grow on a 30-45 degree slant, which shows how consistent the wind direction is. The waves crashed violently against the shore.

And, just as suddenly, the weather would clear and the road surface was black again – the snow having been blown away into the fields. In Omozaki we bought a ticket for the crossing to Hokkaido and we were on our way to our next adventure!

First published in Toyota Trails

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